Given the kind of safe, broadly commercial and largely forgettable movies that both Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy have starred in over the course of the last decade, it's surprising how enjoyable and, at times, borderline "edgy" their new movie Tower Heist is. It's not going to make anyone rethink either man as actors or challenge the status quo, but it represents an honest attempt at making something that's fun and entertaining while still having something more on its mind. For a Ben Stiller movie, it's pretty good. For a post-Coming to America Eddie Murphy movie, it's downright terrific.
Stiller stars as Josh Kovacs, the manager of an upscale New York hotel with a good heart, obsessive attention to detail and rock solid work ethic. After he enlists the entire staff's pension funds with businessman Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda, clearly playing a version of Barnie Madoff), Shaw is brought up on federal charges and revealed to be running what is essentially a Ponzi scheme. Fearing that he has lost every penny saved by everyone he knows, Kovacs decides he's going to steal it all back. He enlists several members of the staff, including Casey Affleck as his brother-in-law, Michael Pena as a dim-witted elevator operator and Matthew Broderick as a recently-evicted tenant, to help him pull off the job. To really make it work, though, Josh decides to ask his childhood friend-turned-criminal, Slide (Murphy), to teach them all how to become master thieves. It all culminates in an impossible heist attempted in the thick of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Though it's being billed as Eddie Murphy's "comeback" movie, in which he finally ditches the terrible family films he's been toiling in for the last 10 years and returns to his comedy roots, most of the best moments in Tower Heist belong to Stiller. That may be because Tower Heist isn't as funny as one would expect, but it does have a streak of righteous anger and frustration that runs through it, and that's best embodied in Stiller's character. The best stuff in the movie actually comes in the first 40 minutes or so, as Stiller builds up a head of steam about being ripped off and seeing the people he cares about get ripped off. It's in these scenes that Tower Heist taps into what so many of us are feeling these days: helpless and screwed and angry. Once the movie shifts gears into a traditional heist film, it becomes more concerned with slapstick and set pieces and loses sight of exactly what it is that's at stake. It doesn't help matters that the heist itself is somewhat lacking -- there's setup and there's payoff, but neither carries enough weight. We keep waiting for the big twist that will refocus everything we've seen, and it never quite arrives.
And then there's Eddie Murphy. He's fine in the movie, don't get me wrong, but it's not quite the comeback we were all hoping for. I went into Tower Heist hoping to see the Murphy of great action comedies past -- namely 48 Hrs. -- but instead got a Murphy that felt too far removed from that kind of edge and energy. He feels like he no longer remembers that guy, but is trying to approximate him based on what he's been told. The result is a performance that's pitched differently than the rest of the movie: he's too loud, too manic, too over the top. None of that is really incorporated into his character, either -- it's not as though those qualities are the joke. It's another example of a group of people patting Eddie Murphy on the back and telling him that everything he's doing is great, when, if any of the talent involved with the movie would have taken a step back and really looked at the performance, they would see that adjustments needed to be made for it to really work. Again, he's fine and gets his share of laughs, but there was potential for something special here. That potential has gone unrealized.
I liked Tower Heist for what it is -- solid, commercial entertainment -- well-directed by Brett Ratner, a guy whose movies are made with energy and skill but not much personality. The photography is great, the cast is very good and the final shot of the movie feels fairly transgressive for a film that otherwise isn't. But for the movie to really matter, it needed to be more of everything: more clever, funnier, angrier. Stiller plays a variation on his everyman that we haven't seen before, using his inherent frustration for more than just comic embarrassment. And though Eddie Murphy's career isn't going to be revived based on his work here, he was smart to take a supporting role in a movie that's generally pretty good (aside from Dreamgirls, of which I'm not really a fan, this is the only movie Murphy has made in 10 years that he doesn't need to be embarrassed about). If he can knock out a few more doubles and triples like Tower Heist, he just may be back in business.
- Tower Heist is rated PG-13 for language and sexual content.
- Release Date: November 4, 2011
- Running Time: 104 minutes
- Studio: Universal